The sun shone brighter than ever before over the woods. It was a cool, crisp morning, and she knew that on a better day, she would have taken the time to enjoy it.
But now there was no time to do so. When her village had been enveloped by the mysterious light, she had honestly expected the army that had destroyed it to stay by the village. After all, the invaders had not been one who had destroyed the village. It was the defenders who had apparently engulfed the village in light while the invaders celebrated their victory. Consequently, she had believed that after winning such a victory, the defending army would stay and help rebuild the village.
They did no such thing. A few soldiers were posted by the village to act as sentries, but the bulk of the army marched away and left her home to its fate. The mysterious light caused fires to erupt throughout the village. Generations upon generations of carefully accumulated wealth and buildings were destroyed in a single night.
However, the girl reasoned as she looked upon the blackened town, the fire couldn't have destroyed everything. So there must be something to salvage and reuse. In order to do so, she walked through the ruins and examined building after building.
How had this happened, she wondered to herself? How could that mysterious light have done so much damage? She worked at a prestigious magical academy as a maid, and thus knew through gossip, whispers, and lost books the basics of how the nobility used their magic. She had even practiced a few times out of the desperate hope that maybe she was a secret, hidden mage as well, to no avail. But she knew of no such magic which could destroy an entire village in one blast.
The girl finally reached her destination. It had once been a comfortable home, adequate to take care of her parents and all of their children. Now it was a smoldering wreck. The roof and two of the walls had caved in both from the light and the invaders' dragon attacks that had occurred the day before.
"Big sister! Big sister!"
She turned around upon hearing a familiar voice. A young boy ran down the street towards her. But the girl did not bother to embrace or comfort her little brother in the slightest as he arrived.
"What are you doing, Pierre? I told all of you to wait in the forest while I look for Mommy and Daddy."
"I'm sorry, big sis!" the boy cried. "But Robin and Paul are really hungry. They won't stop crying because of that, so I wanted to help Big Sis while she went back home."
The girl sighed and looked down at her brother.
"I told you. Right now, the only thing you do to is pray to Brimir. I'm sure that he'll come to help us. Now please, go back. Big Sis will find Mommy and Daddy by herself."
"But I'm already here!" Pierre yelled! "I'm a big boy! I can help Big Sis find them."
"No, it's too dangerous for you here. Go back."
"I SAID go back."
The tone of her voice made the finality of her statement clear. Pierre looked at her big sister for several seconds and then dashed back in the direction he had come from. As she watched him run off, the girl silent apologized to the boy, but she knew that she had to make it clear for him not to follow her. It wasn't out of concern for his safety that she had ordered her little brother to go back. Instead, she didn't want her little brother to realize that Mommy and Daddy were almost certainly not coming back.
But if they were really gone, where would she go? La Rochelle was the nearest city and the best destination for refugees like herself, she thought. But what if that wasn't possible? Her father did have a brother who lived in Tristania. But the two hated each other because of the brother's…oddities, and it would be an insult to his memory if she thus went begging to him.
No. La Rochelle would have to do. There was no reason why she and her siblings couldn't head there anyways. Her brothers and sisters were praying and invoking Brimir's protection at this very moment. What greater shield could there be?
She took a few steps forward towards the house and then stopped. She stared at something which she had not seen when she had first laid eyes on her old home. Two bodies, blackened and charred, lay on the ground in front of the girl's home. Even in death, they held each other's hand.
And as Siesta's knees hit the ground and she wailed without restraint, for the first time she began to wonder whether that shield really would prove sufficient.
Siesta's eyes opened as she woke up. She didn't forget the dream. She rarely did these days. The memories of her past continued to plague her regardless of whether she slept or awake. Even when she had worked in the Academy, she had gotten used to small amounts of sleep as some noble or another had some trivial desire which she would have to immediately fulfill. Nowadays with her nightmares, she was lucky if she slept four hours a night.
She looked across her room. Pierre and Emilie, the only two siblings she had left, slept peacefully together on another bed. They were well fed and happy within the castle. The size of the castle still amazed them and they spent hours upon hours exploring and playing. In addition, even the busy servants of the estate were charmed by their curiosity and some had taken their precious free time to teach them their letters as well as basic arithmetic. Siesta herself helped when she could, but she was so busy these days with everything she had to do for both her present and future.
She had failed to find a place in the nearby village for them to stay. She regularly visited the village and she knew that many of them liked her due to the gossip or small trinkets which she managed to remove from the estate. But when she had asked any of them if they could take care of her brother and sister, their moods instantly shifted and they all refused. Some simply stated that they couldn't afford to take care of two children, but many more of them just refused to look at Siesta and give her a specific reason. But from Siesta's perspective, that refusal to speak was just as good as any answer they could have given. She was not a fool. It was obvious from their actions that they chose not to take care of Pierre and Emilie because of pressure from their Duchess. But through her actions, Karin had confirmed everything which Siesta had believed about her.
The fact was that Karin did not care for Siesta's interest in the slightest, the maid concluded. She was looking out for her own. And because of that, it likely meant that the minute she finished translating the books, Karin would dispose of her. Possibly even before that. If Karin ever figured out the two lies Siesta had been using throughout her translation project…
She thought back to her conversation with Jerome in the cherry orchard. He had told her that day that Karin had cared for Siesta's siblings, and that she would always fulfill her vows. Of course, she couldn't trust that doddering old man either. The butler always hung around her these days. He normally claimed that he wished to help or simply brought her tea. But he was likely someone Karin had sent to spy on him.
So even though she knew that Pierre and Emilie were happy with their new lives, she knew she would have to make her move soon. Honestly, she should have done what she was doing now from the very beginning, but better late than never. If she could get and prepare that before the Duke and Duchess returned from their trip to Tristania, then there would be no problems.
With those thoughts in her mind, Siesta put on her white and blue dress and a pair of slippers, and then walked over to her siblings. They continued to sleep peacefully, without a care in the world, and Siesta stopped for a moment to stroke both of their heads. Then after smiling at both of them, she left her room, quietly closing the door behind her. Siesta made her way through the Valliere estate to the location where she spent most of her time these days. At this early morning hour, she did not meet or see anyone as she walked through the halls.
However, as Siesta arrived at the library entrance, she stopped. A tall, blond-haired woman who wore a set of pointy glasses stood in front of the entrance. As she turned her head towards Siesta, it was clear that she had been waiting for her.
"Good morning, Siesta."
Siesta glared at the woman for a moment, before she lowered her head to her waist in an obsequious bow.
"Good morning, Eleanor. May I ask why you are up at this early hour?"
"I think you know why." Eleanor responded. "I want to look at the library. I want to help you."
"Lady Karin has already said that I am the only one permitted to deal with those books." Siesta declared. "So even if I wanted your help, why would you come here?"
"Well, you see," Eleanor smiled, "Mother is not here. And as I am the elder Valliere daughter, I believe that I currently possess the right to go into the library."
Siesta snorted at those words.
"So, what are you laughing at me about this time?" Eleanor asked.
"You said 'elder daughter'. Not 'eldest.' I'm surprised, Eleanor. You adapted to that change quite well."
"She dishonored the family." Eleanor coolly replied. "I'm not sure what point you're making."
"You don't have any problem going along with your mother when she deals with your sister, but if she does something which personally annoys you, you circumvent her the minute her back is turned. Hypocrite."
Eleanor's lip thinned a little bit at those words.
"That's none of your business. Cattleya stopped you from dealing with me as I should have last time, commoner. But that is different now. Siesta, I order you to let me look at those books."
"I already proved you can't help me. Remember the book I gave you?"
"Because it's ridiculous." Eleanor spat. "You're not special. What makes you the only person capable of reading those books, anyways?"
Siesta shrugged at those words.
"I don't know myself. The books came from another world, and I am the descendant of the man who brought them here. Just as your blood lets you cast magic, mine lets me read them. Perhaps if you so desperately desire to read those books, we can switch our powers."
She bowed once again as if her proposal was serious. Eleanor's eyebrows twitched at the suggestion.
"You're going too far, commoner. Like I said, I am a researcher in magical artifacts. I know all sorts of ancient magical languages! Do not suggest that there is something which I cannot read, and let me in the library!"
Siesta blankly stared at those words. Then she abruptly wheeled around and began to walk off in the other direction.
"Hey, what are you doing?" Eleanor shouted. "Come back here, Siesta! That's an order!"
"I answer to Lady Karin, not to you." Siesta responded as she walked off. "I'll deal with the books later by myself. Good day, Eleanor."
But it was too late. Siesta rounded a corner in the hallway and walked off. Eleanor grumbled and thought about chasing after Siesta and possibly even forcing her to open the library, but she did nothing. Mother would be upset if she went against her orders. Perhaps she could go to Father and ask permission.
Why couldn't she understand? She thought to herself as she walked off in the opposite direction of Siesta. I'm just trying to help. If Siesta finishes her translations, then she can take care of Pierre and Emilie full-time.
Louise couldn't believe it. She had been prepared to work, yes. Fouquet had tricked her into coming here and had left her here so she could head to Tiffania's orphanage, but Louise understood her teacher's reasoning. For now, she was a lowly commoner who was only fit for the most menial and miserable tasks. But if that was the role she had been forced to play, then she would attempt to learn it. It was true that she didn't actually have any experience with the duties of a waitress, how hard could it be? She had resolved herself to work hard, and that was good enough.
But to wear THIS, she thought as she looked at herself in a mirror. The innkeeper, Scarron, had told her to change in a separate room and had given her what he had stated to be "an appropriate dress". But dresses weren't supposed to cut off at the very top of her legs, nor were they supposed to show so much skin! And its pink color just made her look even more vulnerable! This was…hideous, grotesque, an offense against the laws of man and Brimir! How could she be expected to wear this at her very first commoner job?
Louise would have likely continued to wallow in her self-misery, but then someone rapped on the door to her room.
"I'm coming in." a voice said from the other side.
Before Louise could say anything, it was pulled open. A young girl who appeared to be Louise's age stood in the doorway with her hands on her hips. She wore a green dress which matched well with her long black hair.
"Hey, new girl!" she huffed. "Father gave you those clothes ten minutes ago. It shouldn't take that long to put them on!"
"F-father?" Louise asked. "Wait, are you talking about-"
"Yes." The girl said as she rolled her eyes. "Scarron, the innkeeper, is my father. Please do not hold that against me."
She took a single step forward and stuck out her hand.
"Anyways, my name is Jessica. Father may say he's the innkeeper, but as far as you're concerned, that's really me. He takes care of the important business and I handle the day to day management as well as the workers. Obviously, that includes you."
Louise hesitated for a moment, and then gingerly grabbed Jessica's hand and shook it.
"Nice to meet you, Jessica. I am Louise Va-"
Louise stopped right there, as she realized the problem. Could she call herself a Valliere anymore? But if she didn't call herself a Valliere, than what did she call herself? Or should she just admit the truth that she was a disowned noble? But then how would that affect her job?
Louise fidgeted slightly as she thought of the appropriate terminology for this new stage of her life. However, she managed to reach a decision before Jessica spoke up.
"Call me Louise. That will be fine."
"Hmmmmm." Jessica murmured. "Alright, Louise it is. Now that you're dressed, I should take you down to meet your fellow workers."
She walked off towards the restaurant and Louise followed her. Jessica was clearly an energetic girl. She barraged Louise with questions about her past, where she came from, what she had done before, and whether there were any men she liked. But Louise deflected all of them with mere grunts and sighs as she inwardly thought about the prospect of working. She had to admit, it was not something which she altogether relished.
As Jessica and Louise arrived, they looked around at the serving area. Approximately eight girls stood around the bar along with Scarron. The innkeeper struck fabulous pose after pose as they waited, and the girls politely clapped after each one. At this very moment, he had reached up to a high beam near the ceiling and had started to do some chin-ups, only to drop down when he saw his daughter.
"Ah, ma belle Jessica, how wonderful to see you back! And Louise, how beautiful and cute!"
He pranced up to Louise, and then draped a single, muscular arm around her shoulders.
"Everyone, I should like to introduce you to our newest worker today! This is Louise, and I'm sure she shall try her very best as a waitress! Welcome her, s'il vous plait!"
The rest of the girls cheerfully clapped, but Louise only looked at the horrifying thing which continued to stand next to her.
I could run for the dressing room where my wand is. She mused. There has to be a Void spell which can deal with this. Explosion wouldn't be powerful enough.
Thankfully, Scarron danced over to the entrance and away from Louise. He raised a single hand to the door.
"And now, we open!"
He opened the door to the inn. Almost instantly, customers streamed in. They were almost invariably middle-aged men who had seen better days, but who through hard physical labor had managed to earn enough money for a good drink every now and then. Scarron began another series of poses and calisthenics, but most of the customers seemed to take no heed of it. Those that did simply pointed or gave a friendly laugh at him. One customer walked in with two of his friends waved at Scarron as he walked in.
"Scarron! You handsome devil! How much would you take if I gave you some actual clothes one of these days?"
Scarron sadly shook his head and waved his finger at the heckler.
"I am not sure what you are complaining about, mon ami." He cried back. "After all, I'm wearing more clothes than your mother was the last time I saw her."
The customers roared in approval, and even the heckler gave a small chuckle. But as Louise watched the scene, she couldn't believe it.
Is this sort of thing…normal for commoners?
A commoner pointed over at Louise and she stared in confusion. What did he want?
"Hey, I'm asking you to come over here! I have an order for you!"
Oh. Right. Order. She was a waitress. That was the reason for this outfit and for why she was here at all. Louise walked over to the man, who promptly ordered some food and a bottle of wine. With a pad of paper which Scarron had given her, she took the order and rushed to the kitchen. A few minutes later, she rushed out of the kitchen, carrying what the customer had asked for.
"Here you go." Louise said as she laid out the food. The peasant smiled and nodded in appreciation, before he dropped a few gold coins into Louse's hand.
"Thank you very much" he said before he picked up a chicken leg and bit into it.
Louise took the coins and nodded to the man before she walked back to the kitchen. With her chest, a warm feeling swelled up. She felt good. Sure, what she had done just now was small and insignificant, a task which only the lowest of commoners was suited for. But she had accomplished it without any difficulties by herself.
"Hello! Little girl! Come over here!"
Louise was snapped over by her reverie as another commoner called her over. However, she saw as she walked over that he already had a meal and a bottle of wine with him.
"Can I help you, sir?"
The man waved over at his bottle of wine.
"I am feeling tired. Pour me a drink, little girl!"
Louise only managed those words. Since when was that part of a waitress's job?
Oh well, she thought. She picked up the bottle and tried to aim it at the cup. But it was heavy, and so Louise attempted to compensate by holding it a little closer to herself and away from the cup. But the gesture altered her aim, and so the wine gushed out far faster than she had anticipated.
The man gave a shriek of surprise as the streaming wine knocked over the cup and spilled onto his clothes. He looked down at his pants which were now stained dark red and then back on Louise.
"Hey, serving girl, don't you have something to say?"
It took Louise a moment to realize what he meant. But then she instantly lowered her head before him.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to do that, and it won't happen again!"
"Hmm" the peasant nodded. "If you're sure, then there's something you should do as a proper gesture of apology."
"What is it?"
A glint shone in the man's eyes as he stared at Louise.
"You're a cute girl. So let me touch your butt!"
Louise's face turned bright red at those words as she stammered in embarrassment. But the commoner gave off a shrug.
"I could ask you to touch your chest, but I am a gentleman. Besides, those are too small anyways. So to simply touch your butt should be a proper recompense, right?"
The peasant nodded in self-satisfaction, but then looked at Louise. The girl was looking down at the ground, her body trembling.
"What? It's not too bad! I mean, I must say I am a handsome devil. So here, sit down."
The man moved his left leg and patted his knee, indicating that he desired Louise to sit there. His mind bristled with anticipation of the excellent reward he would now receive after a hard day's work.
It did not go as planned.
"HOW DARE YOU INSULT A VALLIERE LIKE THAT? YOU WILL DIE, COMMONER!"
So with those words, Louise leapt on his knee. And his chest. And all over his body as she attacked the commoner in her anger and embarrassment. She pulled his hair and scratched and kicked and punched and-
"Stop it! Stop it!"
Another person showed up and lifted Louise up by her neck like she was a cat. Louise scratched and clawed at thin air, but then she was assaulted by the stench of perfume. There was only one person who could have that horrible, overpowering smell.
Scarron lifted Louise down and looked at the peasant.
"I am tres sorry, monsieur! Tres sorry! I promise that it shall not happen again!"
"There's no need to worry about it" the peasant murmured. "I liked it well enough."
Louise looked at the peasant she had attacked. He was dazed, which wasn't surprising. But he was also smiling. The expression he wore of dazed happiness made no sense at all.
Jessica dashed up to Scarron.
"Is everything all right here?"
"Oui" Scarron nodded. "There is nothing to worry about. Louise won't do that again, please?"
His eyes fluttered as he looked at Louise, but Jessica gave an abrupt cough.
"Father. Please, I'd just like to talk to Louise to make sure everything's all right. Could you take over the bar for a few minutes?"
"Mais of course! Anything for my lovely, most beautiful flower!"
With a jump of joy, Scarron jumped off to the kitchens. Louise watched him bound off, but then felt Jessica's hand clamp around her wrist.
She didn't say anything, but her grip was like an iron band. Without any further words, she dragged Louise away.
"Hey, Jessica, it was an accident, just an accident. It won't happen again!"
It was the opposite of last time. While Louise continued to talk and explain what had happened, Jessica said nothing, nor did she even look at Louise. She dragged Louise along past the kitchens and up a flight of stairs to what Louise realized were a set of rooms for customers. At last, she stopped in front of one door. Jessica released Louise's grip, opened the door, and gestured.
Louise was confused by this entire process, but she nodded. She walked past Jessica and crossed the threshold…
Only to feel something slam into her from behind.
That "something", she realized, was Jessica. The innkeeper pushed Louise onto the floor and Louise slammed onto the wooden surface in surprise. Before she could move, Jessica leapt onto her back and twisted Louise's right arm behind her.
"Ow, stop it!"
Louise would have cried out more, but then she felt something sharp and pointy graze the back of her neck. With her feet, Jessica kicked the door behind them closed.
"You yell, and this knife goes through your neck." She hissed. "Now, start talking."
"What?" Louise asked. "What are you talking about?"
"You want to act like that, fine." Jessica responded. "But what is Louise Francoise le Blanc de la Valliere doing here?"
"What? How did you know that?"
"Because you shouted out to the entire inn that you're a Valliere, you idiot." Jessica snarled. "Everyone else probably just took it as a prank. But not me. I have bigger stakes. I knew something was odd with you and that you were likely a noblewoman, but I didn't think that a Valliere would show up.
So I'll change the question. Did she send you to watch Father and me?"
"She?" Louise repeated.
"If you really are a Valliere, then you should know perfectly well who I'm talking about." Jessica responded. "And don't even think about pretending you're not one now."
Ultimately, Louise realized, it was true. There was only one woman in the Valliere family whom would realistically give any sort of orders.
"No." She said. "Mother didn't send me."
"So you really are the Duchess's daughter. But if she didn't send you, then what are you doing? A Valliere has no reason to work here."
Louise didn't want to answer. To tell someone who she had just met yesterday about her past was too humiliating. But then the knifepoint dug a little further into her neck.
"I'm waiting. I've never killed anyone before, and I don't want to. But I will if there's no other way to protect this inn and Daddy."
So she had no choice. Louise told her story to Jessica. The tale lasted for quite some time as she explained that her mother had kicked her out of the family and thus how her servant had found work for her. Jessica did not ease her grip on her arm in the slightest, but she listened the entire time without saying a word.
"I see." She said as Louise finished her story. "But I've got no way of knowing whether you're telling the truth."
"Y-you just have to believe me." Louse stated. "I'm not a Valliere. Not anymore."
"And I said that's not good enough. You have three minutes to give me proof or give me a way through which I could prove your story. If not…"
The knife pressed a little further into Louise's neck. She promptly began to think of a way to convince Jessica. She had to prove she wasn't a Valliere, even though the decision had occurred only yesterday. This meant that she had to get someone's word for it. Jessica wouldn't believe Matilda, and Louise couldn't talk to Karin. So that only left…
Louise tried to move her around to look at Jessica, but it proved unsuccessful. So she began to speak.
"Jessica, have you heard of Napoleon Bonaparte?"
It really was her only chance of proving anything. Fortunately, Jessica nodded.
"Daddy thinks he's a hero. So I've heard about him."
"Well, I know him." Louise gasped. "So, after today's work is done, my servant can go get him and he can tell you the truth. Would that work?"
Jessica said nothing for a while as Louise awaited her decision. But eventually, she moved away and removed the knife.
"We'll see. I promise that you won't leave this building at all unless you can get him to show up and talk to me."
With those words, she left the room. Louise gingerly picked herself up. For a second, she wondered whether she should chase Jessica down and ask her the reason for her actions, or even if she should try to run down to the dressing room and grab her wand. But it was probably better to wait, she reasoned. Jessica wouldn't try to kill her in front of a crowded inn, and she could wait.
The rest of the day in the Charming Fairy Inn passed by without much incident. Jessica had told Scarron that it would be for the best if Louise washed dishes alongside her. While Louise knew that Jessica had suggested it only to keep her by her side, she really possessed no grounds to object, and Scarron had happily accepted. Louise had proven to be a marginally superior dishwasher compared to her time as a waitress. She only broke every fifth dish and failed to properly wash another fifth, which meant that three out of every five times, she succeeded in properly doing her job. Compared to her short time as a waitress when she had upset one out of every two customers, it was an improvement.
Still, the hours continued to creep on. Jessica adamantly refused to talk with Louise and shut down attempts towards conversation by Louise with grunts just like Louise had earlier. As the sun began to descend, the stream of customers began to slow and the inn began to empty, but the piles of dishes seemed to continue without slowing down. Louise's hands had turned red and sore from being constantly dipped in out of the water, but she still continued with her work.
Eventually, at long last and to Louise's relief, the doors swung open and a blond-haired woman walked into the inn. But then Louise started. She was accompanied by another man, whose presence caused the heads of every single man who sat at their chairs eating food and drinking wine to swerve and stare.
"What is he doing?"
"Is he trying to get taxes or something?"
As the bar's patrons murmured amongst themselves, Napoleon walked up to the counter. He glanced at Jessica for a moment and then turned to Louise.
"So, I understand that Matilda's managed to keep you busy for the day. How's the work?"
Louise didn't bother to respond as she held aloft her hands for Napoleon to see. Then she drove them right back down into the sink as she continued to scrub.
"My, my." Matilda laughed. "Still, I'm glad to see you've been working hard. Jessica, how has she been?"
The black-haired girl looked up at those words as she stared at Matilda. Her eyes narrowed in suspicion and confusion as they ran all over Matilda. They then grew wider in recognition.
"That voice... Matilda, is that you?"
"It's good to see you as well, Jessica." Matilda said. "I hope you've watched over my master quite well."
"What?" Jessica gasped as she looked at Louise. "Hold on…you're Louise's servant?"
"She saved my life and has given me new opportunities. I owe her a lot."
Jessica stared at Matilda as if she had declared that she was from the moon. Her hand, which held a knife which had been slicing lettuce, trembled, as she then looked back and forth between Matilda and Louise.
Then with a clatter, the knife fell on the ground. Jessica collapsed on her knees and crawled over to Louise.
"I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sososososorry for not believing you. Please forgive me, Louise!"
Without even the slightest sense of shame, Jessica literally touched her head to the floor and kowtowed before Louise. As Matilda and Napoleon watched the two with no small amount of confusion, Louise waved her hands.
"No, it's alright! Please, Jessica. But why did you act like that? Could you please tell me what happened?"
With great embarrassment, Jessica crawled back up to her feet.
"I received a letter from my cousin. We used to play when we were kids, but I hadn't seen her in years. But then she sent me this letter which asked if my inn could take care of two of her siblings. She said it was an emergency and that she needed an answer as soon as possible.
But the letter warned about the Vallieres. It said that they were in town and that they might seek to attack our inn or us because apparently she's doing something dangerous with them. I'll admit I didn't believe her but when you declared your name…"
Jessica trailed off, and Louise didn't know what to say. But then Napoleon cut in.
"What is your cousin's name?"
Jessica looked over at him.
"So you're Napoleon Bonaparte? Father's a great fan of yours. I'm sure he would offer you a free drink now and-"
"What is your cousin's name?"
"Well, it's Siesta" Jessica responded. "Why? Do you know her?"
The Charming Fairy was a clean and well-kept building, but its location still remained in the ninth area in the Lower quarters, one of the poorest areas of Tristania.
And as Jessica and Napoleon and Louise talked with one another, a carriage rode through the Upper Quarters. Here, the wider and more-organized streets were paved with cobblestone as opposed to the dirt tracks of the Lower Quarters.
Inside this carriage sat the Duke and Duchess of Valliere. They had just attended a reception which had honored the memory of those who had died at the Battle of Saxe-Gotha. Karin had clapped with approval as the speaker had regaled the crowd of nobles about the bravery which the soldiers whom had died with Henrietta had displayed. The reception had been a fine thing, filled with fine food and wine. Talk of the conference which would begin tomorrow had mostly fallen out of favor compared to the normal discussions over business or the war. But now inside the carriage, the Duke and Duchess began to make arrangements.
"Are you sure you want me around?" The Duke asked. "The funeral is over and I truly want to go back to managing the Valliere estate. The spring planting has to begin soon, after all."
"That sort of thing won't matter once we take the throne." Karin said. "Furthermore, our claim of the throne runs through the fact that you were Her Majesty's uncle. You should be there just to make it clear to the other nobles that you do truly desire it. Once that is done, I can deal and persuade the other nobles to support us. The Duke of Walloon did come up to me and offer his support during the reception, so getting the rest shouldn't be difficult.
Besides, I figure you might as well want to tell Siesta the good news."
"Are you sure about that, dear?" The Duke asked. "You were very adamant about keeping her siblings in the castle."
"She gave us another finished book before we left. I think I'm at the point where I can trust her to some degree. When you get back, you can tell the villagers that they will be permitted to let those children stay at their homes if they desire."
"Very well. Also, are you sure about your decision about Louise?"
"If we make it official that she's no longer a Valliere, then she can't dishonor the Vallieres." Karin said. "I'll accept that and let her live her miserable life."
Karin's thoughts turned to her former daughter for a moment, but she suppressed it. After all, she no longer had a reason to think about Louise. So she tried to distract herself by looking out of the carriage window.
The Duke saw his wife notice as she glanced out there before she turned to him.
"Stop the carriage."
"What are you talking about?"
"I said, STOP THE CARRIAGE."
But Karin didn't even wait. Before the Duke could signal the carriage to stop, Karin jumped out of the carriage door with her wand in her hand. She looked back in the direction which the carriage had passed.
A young girl trembled fearfully as she prostrated herself before a nobleman. The nobleman had light blond hair that was almost white. He was a tall, thin man who towered both over the girl and he held a long thin cane which was adorned with a gigantic diamond at the top. Next to both of them, a hulking servant stood beside the nobleman as he looked at a box which lay on the street.
"Useless commoner!" He cried. "What did you think you were doing right running like that? You crashed into my servant here and wrecked what he was carrying!"
"I'm sorry, sir." The girl sobbed. "I didn't mean it. I just have important things to get done right now and-"
"Important? You? You're just a commoner. You commoner just scrape by while we nobles do the real important work with things you could never understand! Those potions that were in that box were worth more than you'll make in five years! How do you intend to repay that?"
The girl groveled even further into the ground. The nobleman looked down at the ground and then with a leer knelt down before her.
"You know, I can think of a way. All you would have to do is come along with me. How about that?"
Something hit the nobleman in the back of his head and he toppled forward on top of the girl. Both of them yelled in surprise, and the nobleman instantly sprang up to look behind him.
"Who threw that, you commoner scum! I'll…"
His sentence trailed off as he saw Karin and the Duke stand before him. The former folded her arms as she looked at the nobleman.
"Hello, William von Guldenhorf." Karin said. "I'm sure that will be considered repayment enough?"
The nobleman opened his mouth but then looked down on the ground. At his feet lay a pouch filled with coins which Karin had thrown at him. As he opened the pouch to verify its contents, Karin looked over at the girl.
"I think you should get going now."
The girl bobbed her head up and down in appreciation before she ran down the road.
"Come back here!" Guldenhorf shouted at the girl as he lifted his head from the coins. However, the girl paid him no heed and so he turned back to Karin.
"So what do you think you're doing here, Valliere? And these coins aren't nearly enough to pay for these potions! I had them imported all the way from Gallia!"
"Is that so?" Karin asked. "Well, shouldn't the second most important family in Tristain possess enough wealth to begrudge a lost potion or two? Besides, what did you think you were doing with that girl anyways?"
"What does that matter to you?" Guldenhorf spat. "I'm following your precious Rule of Steel, right? The commoners obey whatever the nobles tell them to do, isn't that how it goes?"
"It doesn't mean that we treat commoners like dung. Not that you would know given that half your peasants are starving these days."
Karin's voice dripped with venom as she looked at Guldenhorf. The tall, blond nobleman stared right back as his fingers continued to examine the coins. He then walked forward towards her, though he had to support himself with the cane due to a noticeable limp on his left leg.
"Is this how you intend to deal with affairs between nobles before the conference, Karin?" he hissed. "If you think you can go in that palace tomorrow and flaunt your power, you had better think again. In case you did not know, not everyone enjoys your sanctimonious speeches where you endlessly rant on about honor and the Rule of Steel."
"It's that honor which grants us the right to rule, Guldenhorf."
"Ha!" the nobleman laughed. "Nobility? Honor? That doesn't grant us the right to rule, it's our magic that does. You treat your commoners as if they're not swine and I do, but it makes no difference because of our magic!"
He chuckled again at the absurdity of Karin's declaration.
"Well, I think I'll get going now that you've ruined my fun and before you give me another speech. Farewell, Karin. I hope to have a pleasant conference tomorrow."
With those words, Guldenhorf limped off as he held the coin pouch, and his servant dutifully followed as he carried the dropped box. As they left, Karin grumbled as she watched his back.
"That man is everything that is wrong with nobility these days." She said to no one in particular. "They have no pride or honor."
Her husband nodded.
"That is true. But still, you and I will have to talk with him tomorrow. Guldenhorf is powerful and will likely do our best to annoy us throughout the conference."
"He won't succeed."
Karin turned around and walked back to the waiting carriage.
"Come, dear. We should be off. I'd like to get some rest before the nobles convene tomorrow. It's likely that the next few days will be some of the most important in Tristanian history."